Books Purged, Books Kept

Friday, September 06, 2019
I recently purchased a copy of Lawrence Block’s book The Liar’s Bible. This is a collection of some of his essays that appeared in Writers Digest for years. One resonated strongly with me, specifically the one on purging and keeping books.

I think all writers were readers first, and they have an inordinate love for books. I vividly remember the day I asked my mother to teach me to read (before I’d even started kindergarten) because I didn’t want to wait for her to read from the book of fairytales that was my favorite.

We didn’t own a lot of books because we didn’t have a lot of money. I do remember the set of Encyclopedia Americana, because I used it frequently when researching homework assignments. Owning a set of encyclopedia seemed to be required in the fifties for those who had children who aspired to going to college. And I do remember that when my father converted half of the attic of our cape cod to a bedroom for me, he included a built-in bookcase. I eventually almost filled the two shelves with books I received as presents or managed to buy for myself. The only books I clearly remember owning were a few Nancy Drew mysteries.

It was when I went to college that I began collecting books in earnest. Once I bought a textbook, it was mine, and it took me until late in my junior year to convince myself that it was okay to buy used books for required courses that I knew I would have no use for later on, and then to sell them back to the bookstore at the end of the term. I also discovered that there were bookstores with separate sections for science fiction novels. This was a wonder to me, since genre fiction, pulp fiction, was something I’d only read from magazines, and gotten a carefully curated collection from the library.
Later on, when I had a full-time job and some discretionary income, I made regular trips to Borders and Barnes and Noble to buy new books. I generally left the store with a shopping bag and many hours of reading.

By the time I sold my house, I had seven bookshelves, most of them floor-to-ceiling, overfilled with books. Paperbacks were two-deep on many shelves. But I was moving from a house with three bedrooms and an enormous living/dining room, not to mention a garage, to a small two-bedroom apartment, and I knew some of those books had to go.

How to decide which ones?

I quickly discovered that any book signed by the author was a keeper, even if I hadn’t read it and had no intention of reading it in the future. These had generally been bought at author signings at a bookstore. I’d stood in line to get my brand new copy signed after hearing the author speak or read from the book. I had a personal connection to these books, and I didn’t want to be a traitor by giving them to the Friends of the Library or selling them to a used bookstore.

Pruning my collection of programming books also proved to be difficult. I was retired. The odds of my needing to know how to code in Java or C were tiny. I’d learned multiple languages over the course of my career as a programmer, many of them “just for fun,” so I had many books more obscure than the first two. Every time I move (I’ve done it twice since the first time), I purge a few more of those. But I’ve hung on to three books on HTML (web programming) and anything that has to do with programming games, which I’ve always wanted to do, but never had the time to really study. This really makes no sense, because my HTML coding these days is limited to what I need to format book descriptions on Amazon (and there are even tools to do that for you), but I was a programmer for over thirty years, so there’s an emotional connection that’s still too strong to break.

I have a whole bookcase filled with writing craft books. I prefer to read non-fiction in print because it’s quicker to flip through and scan pages in a print book than it is in an ebook. And I am a sucker for books on character and plotting. I’ve learned something from almost every book I’ve read, and I keep telling myself I’m going to re-read some of these books—as soon as I get the time. I also have a shelf full of crime reference books, handy for a mystery writer, that will stay with me as long as I’m writing, which I figure will be until they shut my coffin and put it in the ground.

Fiction has been a bit easier to let go of. I mostly read fiction on my Kindle now. With aging eyes and arthritic hands, it’s just easier to read ebooks while leaning back in my recliner than to have to sit up straight and position a reading lamp just-so in order to read print books. But there are still lots of books that I’ve kept. I have the full set of Harry Potter books because I wanted them for a long time before I actually started to buy them. And read them, of course. I keep Robert B. Parker’s books in hardcover, and Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro books in paperback. I have several science fiction classics in print. I even bought a fresh copy of Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein when my old paperback got too yellow to read and pages started falling out.

Even my Kindle filled up with books. After some debate (with myself), I bought a new Kindle Paperwhite with more memory on Prime Day. Yes, I know you don’t have to keep them all on your device because they’re always in the cloud, but it’s nice to have them with you. You never know when the internet will be unavailable. Or the apocalypse might come. Having to regularly remove books from my old Kindle to make room for new ones bothered me.

With all of this purging, I managed to cut down to five bookcases instead of seven. I’d really like to make it two: one for writing reference books for my “office,” which I envision as the corner of a bedroom or dining area, and one for the books I display in the living area. This is because the idea of living in a one-bedroom apartment has some appeal, not the least of which is cost. But right now, I need a bigger apartment. Mostly for my books.

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Elise's bookshelf: currently-reading

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